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Juniors put their communications skills to the test

Coursework , Event Recaps , Faculty Stories | Jan 12, 2012 |

One team of Class of 2013 students discusses a challenge with their professional evaluator, in red at right.

A reporter is on the phone demanding your reaction to just-announced charges of insider trading against your boss, the CEO. Think fast. What do you tell the reporter?

One of your company’s most crucial suppliers delivers the news that she’s raising her prices by 50 percent. Think fast. How do you negotiate with her?

Your company hired a new chief executive this morning, and you’ve got to get the news out via Twitter. Think fast. In 140 or fewer characters, what do you type?

We all think we know how to communicate. We are constantly talking, e-mailing, participating in meetings, posting Facebook messages, and dealing with colleagues, subcontractors and the public. It seems impossible that we could possibly be doing any of that wrong.

Students work in a team to strategize a response to one of the individual challenges.

Juniors enrolled in Gabelli’s integrated business core recently discovered, however — after taking an intensive, hands-on Business Communication II course — that good communication doesn’t always come intuitively. There are strategies to be learned, techniques to be practiced and instincts to be developed.

The course, artfully designed by Professors Travis Russ and Meghann Drury, helped students do all of those things.

Business Communication II culminated at the end of last semester in the ultimate test of the students’ progress: a communications “obstacle course” in which the juniors played the roles of executives from major corporations and responded — in real time — to a series of eight challenging situations, each designed to test their communications skills.

Students had no idea what was coming until they opened the portfolio of materials for each individual challenge. The point was to handle tough situations exactly as they come to us in the real world: without warning, and requiring a professional response within a handful of minutes. Each challenge included several minutes of preparation time, during which the teams formulated their response and practiced their delivery of it.

Three of those challenges were represented in the questions at the beginning of this article. Some others?

  • One included answering questions off the cuff about your company’s missteps and opportunities for growth.
  • In another, students participated in a culturally sensitive business interview with someone from the (imaginary, of course) Nacirema people, which meant avoiding eye contact while they spoke and avoiding any kind of hand gestures.
  • Another challenge asked students to determine who needed to hear about a class-action lawsuit filed against their company and to select the best message for each group: Employees? Shareholders? The general public?
  • And the final challenges called for self-reflection and peer feedback delivered on the spot to teammates about their participation in the challenges.

The scene in the McGinley Ballroom, where the communications simulation was held.

Each team fielded the eight challenges from the perspective of a real company they had spent months researching: Walmart, Coca Cola, Google, P+G, Nike, McDonalds and more. A facilitator, in the form of a working businessperson, professor or dean, sat with each table of students to assess their performance, evaluating not only the students’ final product, but also their work process and their communication with one another in reaching a solution.

Throughout the simulation, the facilitators provided real-time coaching to each students, helping them to identify their communication strengths and improvement opportunities.

“This simulation gave students a wonderful opportunity to see how they can apply academic concepts to a real-life business situations,” program co-designer Professor Russ said. “It helped students close the gap between theory and practice. Students received a real-time snapshot of how they would perform in a face-paced and stressful business environment.”

The program’s other co-designer, Professor Drury, said, “We created this simulation as an alternative method to typical final exams. We wanted something different where students could actually demonstrate the communication skills they learned in class. After all, we can all say we know how to communicate well, but it’s a very different thing to put our communication skills into practice, particularly when we face time constraints and challenging situations where we don’t have all of the information.”

“Students and facilitators alike said they appreciated the risk Dr. Russ and I took in trying something new,” she added, “and stated it was a memorable experience that will impact them in their current and future jobs.”

For more information about this simulation, please contact Dr. Russ at russ@fordham.edu, or Dr. Drury at mdrury@fordham.edu.

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